Angela Merkel's grand bargain offered to Russia seemed a little too good to be true when it first came out into the open, and so initially I refrained from commenting on it. It seems to be more than just the figment of a journalist's imagination, however, so merits a closer look.
The deal on the table appears to require Russia to withdraw its forces from Transnistria and work constructively with the EU on settling frozen conflicts (Transnistria being the first which would be addressed.). In return, the EU will allow visa-free access for Russian citizens and will take a serious look at Russia's proposed security apparatus.
Members of the European Commission appear to have been non-plussed by Merkel's idea. Not only did she go over their heads, she also linked two very different policy areas. What have visas to do with the national security of a neighbouring country?
That link is in fact the centrepiece of the deal. By tying visas to Transnistria, Angela Merkel has made Transnistria Putin's problem, not just Moldova's. For the first time in twenty years, the Russian people (and by extension their leadership) have a vested interest in the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict.
I fully expect that, over the coming weeks and months, the Russian people will start asking Putin and Medvedev what is so important about Transnistria that it's getting in the way of their Paris vacation. And Russia's leaders don't have a substantive answer to that question.
Merkel and the EU need to be very careful, however, to ensure full Russian compliance with their side of the bargain. Moldova has been duped many times before in Transnistria. Really, the EU should insist on a full and fair settlement, not just "withdrawal of forces".
All Russian forces should go, whether they be the 14th Army in the guise of guards supervising ammunition dumps or the 14th Army in the guise of peacekeepers. Withdrawal should mean just that; changing their helmets or flags should be off the table. Finally, Russia needs to engage constructivly in the settlement process. That means a cessation of all forms of support to the Smirnov regime.
It's going to be an interesting few months as we see whether Merkel and the EU will keep their nerve, and the extent to which popular pressure will bear on Putin and Medvedev. Whatever, for the first time in 20 years there is a glimmer of hope that the evil regime in Tiraspol may be coming to an end.